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Woman over 50 telling her adult child about a health issue
When Buckingham Palace shared that King Charles III had cancer, it served as a sobering reminder that no one is immune to serious health issues—not even royalty.
The King conceivably had to break the news to his two sons, Princes William and Harry, which couldn't have been easy. Experts share that many people struggle with the idea of telling their children about a recent serious medical diagnosis like cancer, a heart condition and dementia. Just the idea of a conversation like that can drum up feelings of anxiety.
"The older parent fears upsetting their adult child, who worries about losing their parent and watching them suffer," says Dr. Gary Small, MD, the chair of psychiatry with Hackensack University Medical Center. "Many people would rather avoid the conversations rather than address the topic head-on."
However, experts share that avoiding the topic can exacerbate anxiety and even break trust with adult children. Words won't relieve anyone's physical or emotional pain, but mental health professionals say they are critical.
"Finding the right words is crucial because it can set the tone for the entire conversation," says Olivia Pelts, LMHC. "Well-chosen words can convey empathy, clarity and reassurance. Conversely, poorly chosen words may lead to confusion, anxiety or misunderstanding."
While you can't completely control how your adult child feels about your diagnosis, it's worth aiming for the former. Experts shared top phrases when discussing a recent and serious medical diagnosis with an adult child (and what to avoid).
How To Tell an Adult Child You Have a Serious Health Issue
1. “Do you have a few minutes to talk? I have something I need to discuss with you.”
Consider this phrase a softer way to ask, "Are you sitting down?"
"Asking permission before sharing challenging news helps the adult child understand that you are about to share something important," says Dr. Brian Letourneau, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified rehabilitation psychologist. "This enables the child to ensure that they are not distracted during the conversation and can give the parent their full attention."
2. "I need to share something important about my health with you."
This phrase is a bit more specific than the first one, as it immediately clarifies that the conversation will surround your health.
"This phrase sets a serious and respectful tone for the conversation, signaling the importance of what is about to be shared," Pelts says. "It prepares the adult child for a significant discussion, allowing them to mentally brace themselves for sensitive information."
3. "You know that as people get older, they are more likely to experience different physical illnesses."
Dr. Small says starting with a broad, factual statement is a good idea.
Dr. Small suggests following this phrase with something like, "Now that I’m X years old, you know I have had several common medical issues...that my doctor has been treating with medicines."
"This sets the stage for what’s to come, so you don’t jump into it off the bat," Dr. Small explains.
4. "You might have noticed I've been going through some health challenges."
This approach lets you and your adult child ease into the conversation.
"It serves as a gentle introduction to the topic, making the conversation feel more natural and less abrupt," Pelts says. "This acknowledges any observations or concerns they might have already had, validating their feelings and perceptions."
5. “I went to the doctor, and I have been diagnosed with [condition]. I discussed it with my doctor, and here is the plan.”
This one is straightforward by design.
"When hearing that a loved one has been diagnosed with a serious medical condition, adult children are likely to have many questions and concerns," Dr. Letourneau says. "Giving a clear, direct statement of the diagnosis along with the plan can help the child feel like the parent is working with a medical professional to receive the best care."
6. “We don’t have to talk about this right now.”
Once you break the news, you might follow up with this short but powerful statement.
"This phrase acknowledges that the information is a lot to take in, so your adult child may need time to process it before they are ready to talk," says Erisa M. Preston, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Mindpath Health. "Saying it this way lets them know you are okay to wait on the conversation if that is what they need."
7. "What you’re feeling right now is normal and OK."
It's tough to watch your child have any range of emotions—from shock to anger to fear and anxiety, perhaps all at once. However, it's important for you—and them—to normalize these feelings.
"Validate your adult child’s emotions and reactions so that they feel safe to share [what they are feeling]," says Helene D'Jay, MS, LPC, the executive director of young adult services with Newport Healthcare. "There are bound to be a mix of emotions to work through."
8. “We don’t have all the answers, but we have hope/faith.”
Your child may have questions about your treatment and prognosis that you may still be hammering out with your healthcare team. And it can be challenging for even doctors to share some answers. It's best to be upfront.
"Acknowledge that there is some uncertainty with the situation but that there are things to lean on, like hope and faith as applicable," D'Jay says.
9. "I want you to know that I'm getting the best care possible."
This phrase strikes a positive tone without giving false hope.
"This phrase is reassuring, aiming to alleviate immediate worries about treatment and care," Pelts says. "It's important to communicate the steps being taken to manage the health issue, providing a sense of control and planning."
10. “I admit I’m scared, but I have complete confidence in my medical team…”
Dr. Small likes how this phrase is vulnerable but reassuring. It keeps the adult child's feelings in mind while letting you put some of yours out there too.
"This is one way to put the illness into perspective and avoid unfounded worries," Dr. Small says.
11. “I’m sure you have your own feelings about this, and I’d like to hear about them.”
Dr. Small suggests giving your child permission to feel their feelings.
"This helps mitigate the fears of abandonment and reassures them that you are not running away from their feelings," Dr. Small says.
12. “I probably won’t be able to answer all of your questions, but we can research together.”
Dr. Preston suggests this phrase because it acknowledges the uncertainty of navigating a serious condition while conveying togetherness.
"Suggesting doing that together helps to draw you together as a family rather than something you cope with individually," Dr. Preston says.
13. “I know this is scary. It’s OK to be scared.”
Fear doesn't stop when your child understands there aren't monsters in their closet. Dr. Preston says this line exemplifies responsible and empathetic parenting because it validates a child's need to come to terms with your mortality.
"The reality is, even though they are an adult, they are still your kid," Dr. Preston says. "They may not need you in the ways they did as a child, but they don’t want to think about a life without you."
14. "Would you like to join us at the next doctor’s appointment?"
Having a support person at appointments can be useful, but D'Jay recommends asking this question for another reason.
"If this is possible, it can be a good way for your adult children to ask their questions about the situation directly to the medical professional," D'Jay says.
15. “I want you involved however you feel you can be.”
Dr. Preston loves that this phrase is equal parts direct and low-pressure.
"Sometimes, adult children feel awkward or unsure when they are expected to—or welcome to—step into a more active role of helping their parents," she says. "The role reversal only sometimes comes smoothly or organically. This phrase gives more direct permission to step into that role if that is something they want."
16. “I think I’ll probably need some help getting through things.”
Depending on your relationship with your child and their capacity to help, consider being more straightforward about your future needs.
"This phrase acknowledges that the health condition is serious and may involve changing your ability to care for yourself and/or emotionally cope," Dr. Preston says. "Sometimes, saying you will need help can be a powerful tool in reducing the isolation a person feels when dealing with a serious health condition."
17. "I know you are concerned. I wanted to tell you directly so you are informed."
This simple phrase is all sorts of empathetic, validating and relationship-building.
"When faced with an unpredictable or uncontrollable situation, sometimes the best response is feeling like another person appreciates your emotions," Dr. Letourneau says. "Informing the child that you wanted to share the information directly helps the child feel like they are respected and valued as a family member."
18. "What can I do to help you process this?"
Pelts love that this question considers a child's feelings. "It's a way of offering support and understanding, acknowledging that they may need time and space to adjust," she says.
19. "How are you feeling about this news? What are you hearing?”
Again, empathy is key in helping a child come to terms with the news.
"Inviting your adult child to share their feelings demonstrates empathy and acknowledges the emotional impact the news has on them," Pelts explains. "It fosters a two-way conversation rather than a one-sided announcement."
20. “I appreciate you listening to me. I love you.”
This phrase is a compassionate way to end the initial conversation.
"Acknowledging that this conversation was difficult can be a powerful way to make the child feel connected to their parent," Dr. Letourneau says.
What Not To Do When Telling an Adult Child About a Serious Diagnosis
Whatever you do, don't lie or give false hope. "I cannot overstate this enough: Avoid minimizing the seriousness of the health issue or making unrealistic promises," says Pelts.
For instance, Dr. Small advises against saying, "Everything will be OK." Ditto for phrases like, "I'll be fine" or "It's no big deal," says Pelts.
"This will likely provoke frustration in your adult child as they can hear the gravity of the situation and also experience you as not being either forthcoming or realistic about the potential outcomes of the situation," Pelts explains. "Honesty and transparency are key to fostering a supportive and understanding atmosphere during this conversation."
This honesty can bring the two of you closer, which is critical during a challenging time for everyone.
"We are not made to go through suffering or difficult seasons alone but rather with our community," says Pelts.
Dr. Gary Small, MD, the chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center
Dr. Brian Letourneau, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified rehabilitation psychologist
Erisa M. Preston, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Mindpath Health